European Union governments are set for weeks of difficult debate ahead of a planned review of long-standing sanctions against Burma/Myanmar on April 30. EU policymakers should take a deep breath: the discussion, difficult and emotional at the best of times, has become even more complex – and urgent – following the release in November last year of opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the organization of elections in the country and the establishment of a new civilian government headed by Thein Sein.
Critics say the elections were rigged and the military’s hold on power remains undiminished. Those pressing for a more pragmatic approach insist, however, that changed circumstances in Burma, as well as the growing influence of China and India in the country, demand a review of Western policy. That would entail at least a visible sign of European flexibility, possibly even a lifting of some sanctions.
An EU decision would certainly be easier if Ms Suu Kyi came out clearly against restrictions. Instead, the NLD leader has been sending mixed signals, telling some reporters she wants to retain sanctions but asking foreign governments to invest in her country’s technology and infrastructure.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Ms Suu Kyi, recently called for talks with the US, EU, Australia and Canada on how best to modify sanctions to encourage democracy and human rights. The opposition group denied suggestions that sanctions were responsible for Myanmar’s economic plight, saying this was the result of bad government policies. The NLD Statement did not, however, spell out the reasons for their claim. And in fact, several ethnic parties and other opposition parties have publicly called for lifting of economic sanctions, saying that they do hurt ordinary people.
The influential Burma lobby in Europe remains implacably opposed to any move to lift sanctions. Warnings from the new Burmese government to NLD leaders that they could meet a “tragic end” if they failed to recognise the political realities in the country, certainly do not contribute to a constructive debate.
Foreign Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are pressing Washington and Brussels to lift sanctions to ensure economic development in the country. “However, it should be remembered that lifting the ban and reconciliation go hand in hand,” an ASEAN statement insisted. EU member states are divided and undecided. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy, has said she will keep a close watch on how accountable the new Parliament and government will be vis-à-vis the electorate and on the government’s stance on human rights.
Britain remains committed to sanctions unless Ms Suu Kyi says otherwise. However, a leaked US diplomatic cable disclosed by the Wikileaks website recently revealed that Italy, Spain and Germany were advocating an EU “re-engagement” with the Burma.EU sanctions, introduced in 1996, include an armsre embargo and a ban on sales of equipment for internal repression, targeted financial sanctions and an EU-wide travel ban for the senior members of the military regime and their family members. The EU has also withdrawn its generalised system of preferences (GSP) for Burma’s exports, motivated by forced labour. Analysts say that incidents of forced labour are confirmed, but exclusively within the armed forces. The GSP withdrawal, however, is believed to be hurting exports of textiles and fishery products. There is also an import and export ban on timber, metals and semi-precious stones and an investment ban on enterprises owned, controlled or associated with the government.
Internal evaluations of the effectiveness of sanctions have been made by the EU, but never made public. They are said to paint a disastrous picture of the impact of Western economic sanctions as counterproductive on the political level and as regards impact on the people. There is concern that maintaining sanctions could limit Burma’s economic recovery and further isolate an already inward-looking regime. Certainly, while the EU is held back by sanctions, China, India and some Southeast Asian countries, are expanding their economic presence in Burma.
As they prepare for the policy review, EU governments will have to consider a more balanced policy. This could mean continuing support for the charismatic Ms Suu Kyi as a victim of repression, but more circumspection in unconditionally following her views on sanctions. What’s best for the people of the country and broader geopolitical imperatives deserve a deeper analysis. It’s going to be difficult. But it’s time to start the discussion.